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ELECTION UPDATE

Sharon’s Kadima Party Continues To Gain Strength At Expense Of Likud

Likud Game-Plan: ‘Polls Will Pick Up For Us Once We Finish Party Leadership Race’

Shimon Peres: ‘Labor Party Leader Peretz Is Unsuitable To Become Prime Minister’

Maariv Pole

Although the election campaign is barely underway, it is fast becoming the most dramatic in the state’s history. Voters and politicians are still reeling from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s move to bolt the right wing Likud and form the centrist party Kadima. The Likud may not be out but it is certainly on the ropes at this point of the campaign. And in left wing Labor, new party leader Amir Peretz is in the midst of his own political firestorm.

:: IsraCast Audio ::

Sharon soars, Likud slumps while Labor solidifies its gains. The latest polls show Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party increasing its lead to as high 39 seats in the 120 member Knesset.

Sharon's former Likud, if lead by Bibi Netanyahu might even drop as low as 11 seats. Labor is marking around 26 mandates. But the polls may be very misleading; Sharon has obviously devastated the Likud now embroiled in a bitter race for party leader. The Likud candidates are tearing each other to shreds in what is turning out to be a no-holds barred free for all between Netanyahu and his two closest rivals Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. While the mudslinging continues, more Likud voters may have been swayed to Sharon. But once the Likud selects its leader later this month, the party can be expected to rally around him. At least, that's what loyal Likudniks are hoping. If so, the Likud will then be able to recoup some of its losses by targeting Sharon. But the fact that Likud front-runner Netanyahu would win only 11 Knesset seats may sway many Likudniks to switch to Mofaz or Shalom. In any case, if the Likud is to mount a comeback, it must draw from Sharon. Therefore, Sharon may have peaked and nowhere to go but down while Likud may have bottomed out and nowhere to go but up. .

Labor: Labor looks as it has stabilized at around 26 seats under Amir Peretz. After quitting Labor, former party leader Shimon Peres is now quoted in the media as saying in private that 'Peretz is unfit to become prime minister and his election would be dangerous adventurism'. Peres still has influence with many veteran Laborites and may cause Peretz to lose ground.

MK Yossi Sarid: The departure of Yossi Sarid from Meretz signifies another major change on the left side of the political map. Meretz is expected to win another five seats without any real message to the electorate after Peretz has taken over Labor. Sharon's quitting the Likud is leading to the emergence of three main political blocs: Likud on the right, Sharon's Kadima in the center with Labor on the left. The Peres- Ramon- Yitzhak move from Labor to Sharon has solidified Kadima in the center of the political map. It has left Sharon exposed to Likud charges that a vote for Sharon is a vote for Peres. This could deter some Likudniks who are thinking of voting for Sharon. However Sharon, who coerced the Likud party into accepting the unilateral withdrawal, should be able to cope with this in the campaign.

Campaign Issues: Labor's Amir Peretz is getting credit for bringing growing inequality to front row center. All parties are now following the Peretz lead; Sharon has just announced a $1.8 billion welfare package for his next four-year term, if he wins. As for the Palestinians, Sharon has created a party that is ready to move gradually on a peace deal that is bolstered by real Palestinian steps to ensure Israeli security. This is a change from the Oslo process. The current polls indicate most Israeli voters are ready to move in this direction. After the waves of Palestinian suicide bombers, public opinion turned against Oslo believing that left-wing Labor was 'ready to give away the store' for bogus Palestinian promises. This lead to the eventual election of a strongman Sharon who could provide personal security. Sharon's break with the Land of Israel ideology then shipwrecked the Likud. But make no mistake, it is Sharon's force of personality that is now shaping the new political map in Israel.

David Essing

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